Morrissey Flaunts Natural Dramatic Flair at Broadway Debut

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If you want to win over a crowd on the Great White Way, you need to open with something fun, relatable and splashy. Morrissey knows this, and at the first night of his residency at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, he combined one of his hits with a New York standard: “There is a light and it never goes out … on Broooadway.” Then, perhaps realizing that was funny enough, he sang “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and promptly returned to Moz-nes as usual.

Related: The Smiths: All 73 Songs, Ranked by Rob Sheffield

The 46th St. venue’s exterior was decked out with multicolor, Warhol-eque collages of the former Smiths frontman’s face (one sign declares he is “Making his Broadway debut”) and the theater even printed up a Playbill featuring a half-page picture of Morrissey where there are usually multiple headshots of a show’s cast and a rather lengthy bio for himself (but not his band members). But Morrissey treated the concert like any other: There was no kick line, no Springsteen on Broadway­­–style song explainers, no surplus razzle-dazzle. And none of this is a bad thing. Despite an embarrassingly spotty track record for canceling gigs, when Morrissey does stage a concert, he milks all of his inherent self-deprecation for what it’s worth, and that’s exactly what his fans want. Since he was playing to a smaller room than usual — the sold-out Lunt-Fontanne seats around 1,500 — the performance felt more intimate than his shows in recent years at Madison Square Garden or even the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (It’s worth noting, too, that Morrissey is one of several artists set to do residencies at the theater; Regina Spektor, Yanni and Mel Brooks are all slated to perform there in the coming months.)

When Morrissey paced the stage, holding hands with the front row during “Suedehead,” you could see him trying to connect with his people. And when he sang, “Why do you send me silly notes?” he took a book a fan gave him — no doubt a handwritten tome of ostentatious poetry and Oscar Wilde–inspired prose — and carried it with him into the next song, Maladjusted’s “Alma Matters.” He was even so kind as to accept another collection of someone’s chicken-scratchings during his mini medley of the Smiths’ “What She Said” and “Rubber Ring” toward the end of the night.

After all, Morrissey fans are always nearly as important as Morrissey at his concerts. Perhaps because the theater took its sweet time in opening the house (a Broadway tradition), the line of fans stretched more than halfway to Eighth Avenue before the show. A Times Square busker entertained them with acoustic versions of songs like the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Inside, the audience found its seats and took in a video montage of songs by the Ramones, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Morrissey’s personal hero Jobriath (he sang the late artist’s “Morning Starship” during the concert) and footage of Lenny Bruce set to Tim Hardin’s dreary “Lenny’s Tune” (a song, along with the Jobriath number, that Morrissey covers on his upcoming California Son LP.) But through it all, the crowd watched diligently until several cones of light appeared behind the screen to create the backdrop for Morrissey’s band (who wore matching black T-shirts).

The audience was equally receptive to the set list, which featured a survey of Morrissey’s entire career. He’s known for varying his song selection night by night, and he did a good job on Thursday of mixing up the songs fans expect with deeper cuts. His time in the Smiths was represented with crowd pleasers like “How Soon Is Now?” and “Is It Really So Strange?”; he hit his marks with solo sing-along favorites like “Everyday Is Like Sunday” and “Hairdresser on Fire”; and he quizzed his fans’ dedication with B sides like “Munich Air Disaster 1958” and “If You Don’t Like Me, Don’t Look at Me.” There were never any points where he seemed to lose the audience, which stayed on its feet the entire time.

Part of the reason it all worked is because, apropos of Broadway, Morrissey has a natural dramatic flair. During “Jack the Ripper,” he flooded the stage with smoke and red lighting. Even though the smoke was dense, you could see that he momentarily took off his blazer to flex his bare arms, but it was a fleeting moment and he clothed himself again by the end of the song. He also prowled the stage, kneeled during the throbbing outro of “How Soon Is Now?” (just after singing, “I’m still the son and the heir”) and waved his hands in the air during “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” During “I Wish You Lonely,” the screen behind him showed Maggie Thatcher about to be struck by a polo player on a horse, and during “The Bullfighter Dies,” he displayed footage of matadors being pummeled as a statement about animal rights (though it was disturbing that the bull looked hurt at the end of the clip). Ever the activist, Morrissey stuffed his bags of merch with postcards for PETA.

The night’s encore, “Let Me Kiss You,” has lyrics asking the audience to picture someone they physically admire, but his inner actor came out during the last verse when he asked them to think of someone they physically despise. In a fit, he ripped off his shirt to show his bare chest and disappeared from the stage.

For all his melodramatic choreography, it was Morrissey’s singing that was the star of the night. For 20 songs, he crooned and bellowed, and his voice remained strong, like that of someone decades younger. “You never know, you might make it to the end,” he said at one point. “Think positive.” Well, positive thinking seems to be working out. Morrissey may not have gone full Bob Fosse or even Harvey Fierstein, but he did live up to his reputation as the Pope of Mope — even if he did look like he was having a good time. For one night only (or maybe even six more), he may have gotten what he wanted. Lord knows, it would be the first time.

Set list:

“That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”
“Alma Matters”
“Hairdresser on Fire”
“Is It Really So Strange?”
“I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”
“How Soon Is Now?”
“I Wish You Lonely”
“World Peace Is None of Your Business”
“Morning Starship”
“If You Don’t Like Me, Don’t Look at Me”
“Munich Air Disaster 1958”
“Back on the Chain Gang”
“The Bullfighter Dies”
“Trouble Loves Me”
“Jack the Ripper”
“Seasick, Yet Still Docked”
“Everyday Is Like Sunday”
“What She Said/Rubber Ring”
“Let Me Kiss You”